Letter from Santa Clara
“Just Whose Usable Past?”
In 1915, Van Wyck Brooks America's Coming of Age
first floated the concept of a "usable past" (in the United States). You
may be more familiar with the quasi-analogous “within living memory”
subset of familial, nationalist-community or “official” written history,
stopping considerably short of Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious” by
being conscious. How conscious is another matter.
Recently, after a session on “Acing the Interview” at
ProMatch in Sunnyvale, a guy who had heard me say “I’m new here” came up
to ask me if I had moved out here without a job offer. I explained “Yes,
but I’m the reverse of the usual case of the wife following the husband
who has the job offer.” This raises the hackles on most men’s necks: she
has the job; he humbly follows along after her. But I explained that we
had both worked here twice before. Even more visible bewilderment.
What next snapped his cap was my saying that the
culture here was quite different. He quickly said: ‘Well, you’re a Yankee,
of course you’d think it is.” But, I insisted, I’m by no means a Yankee,
I’m a Polish-speaking ex-Roman Catholic. (My mother was a Polish-speaker;
my cradle tongue, as they say, was Polish, which I lost for lack of
serious continued exposure.) More bewilderment. He next insisted I was
used to living in a place where the Pilgrims had landed (in 1620).
I assured him that in 62 years in greater Boston, I
had come to know very few people who had descended from those Pilgrims.
They were all reluctant to admit it in public, and it had not profited
them much, if anything. He was stunned. But I went on to say that there
was quite a long time-line here, too. Yes, he said, but nowhere as long as
back in Boston.
Which brings us to the Usable Past. Santa Clara was
founded as a city in 1852 (post-Mexican War Era); the Mission dates back
to 1777 (Revolutionary War Era). Those are the bald historical facts. Now
A Mission Record of the California Indians
(1811) (Translated by Alfred. L. Kroeber)
Santa Clara is in Costanoan territory, but it
is probable that Miwok or Yokuts Indians were brought here as they were
brought to San Jose and San Juan Batista. It is in this way that the third
and totally distinct language mentioned is to be explained. The
missionaries at Santa Clara in 1811 were Magin Catalá and Jose Viader.
There are three languages at this mission, two of them related (bastante
parecidos), and the third, which is of the east, totally distinct.
Sometimes they bury the dead, sometimes burn them. As to whether they
place food with them, we believe that they do not. They do not know any
distinction of superiority. Only in war do they obey the chief, and the
wizards and magicians in matters of superstition. In everything else
everyone does what he pleases. In their dissensions and disputes the
strongest party wins.
Even in what Americans call the present (2004), a
broader and deeper version of historiography holds. It depends entirely
upon who you are. If you’re an American, it’s pretty much white; if
you’re not, it’s something more colorful (de colores). If your
usable memory includes the Californios, it’s a “mixed” (mestizo)
time-line; if it includes the original inhabitants, who knows how far back
it goes? It’s how you use it. I once saw a brown teenager eagerly
reading a school-reading list paperback on the bus: it was titled “Alta
California.” I couldn’t tell whether it was in English or Spanish,
but minimal perceptiveness admits he was eagerly using that now-usable
past to “enrichen”’ his time-line.
Back in Lynn, Mass., I was the progeny of very recent
Scottish & Polish immigrants. Nobody in my extended family had served in
WW1. (One served in the Spanish-American war; his cousins followed him
here in 1911, but stayed out of WW1.) When a grammar-school classmate
showed me his great-great grandfather’s dark blue civil war jacket (with a
bloody bullet-hole in its chest), I was astonished. It was just not part
of my usable past. Historically, I was barely an American.